Fired up by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some tough talk by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), NJ Jewish leaders fanned out across Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of legislation that would add congressional scrutiny to any nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran.
The citizen lobbyists, attending the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, listened to Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress on what he called a “very bad deal” before setting off to press a three-point agenda with their local representatives.
The first point was support for a bipartisan bill sponsored by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that calls for cascading monthly increased sanctions that will begin if a final deal is not completed by a July 1 deadline.
They are also asking lawmakers to sign on to a letter drafted by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) stating that “Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb.” A third demand is that legislators have the ability to review any final agreement reached with Iran.
Among the people the AIPAC delegates visited were two House members who stayed away from Netanyahu’s speech — Reps. Donald Payne (D-Dist. 10) and Bonnie Coleman Watson (D-Dist. 12). Both representatives issued statements strongly supportive of Israel, even as they objected to what they saw as the partisan nature of the speech.
Over 50 Democratic lawmakers, including six Jewish members of Congress, did not attend the speech, citing the impending Israeli election and the fact that Republicans extended the invitation without consulting the administration.
AIPAC’s annual conference, featuring 16,000 pro-Israel delegates, was climaxing on Tuesday when Netanyahu delivered his speech. In it he argued that the proposed nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran will lead inexorably to a nuclear-armed Iran and war in the Middle East.
Despite weeks of wrangling between Republicans and Democrats over the GOP’s invitation to Netanyahu without White House consultation, “there was a strong feeling that Netanyahu helped overcome some of the partisanship that had been a prelude to his congressional speech,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“When we came here there was a unified agreement that people would put down any partisanship they had and listen to what Netanyahu had to say,” she told NJ Jewish News in a cellphone call from the floor of the AIPAC convention.
The night before Netanyahu addressed the joint session of Congress, Menendez appeared before AIPAC with some harsh words for Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice.
She preceded the senator on the AIPAC podium and made it clear that the administration opposes legislation that would automatically hit Iran with sanctions if a deal is not reached under deadline.
Last week, Rice said that Netanyahu’s address to Congress was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel.
“I must disagree with those who say the prime minister’s visit to the United States is destructive to U.S.-Israel relations,” Menendez said. “Tomorrow I will be proud when I escort the prime minister to the House chamber to give his speech.”
Menendez also underlined his differences with his Democratic colleagues in the White House.
“I am not intimidated by anyone,” Menendez said — “not Israel’s political enemies and not my political friends.”
His tough stand resonated strongly with local activists who heard his speech.
“For sure his attack on Susan Rice pleased most people,” said Larry Rein of West Orange. “She was very lackluster. She didn’t share much of anything.”
“Menendez was really, really adamant,” said Robert Kuchner of Westfield. “He said, ‘You are better off with no deal than with a bad deal, and we have to play hardball with these guys.’”
“We should be extremely proud of both of our senators, particularly Menendez,” said Steve Newmark of Florham Park. “He brought the house down.”
While many AIPAC delegates said they hope there can eventually be an acceptable agreement that would defuse Iran’s nuclear intentions, Gregg Russo of Randolph was skeptical.
“I think the Obama administration is somewhat delusional to think we can trust Iran. The idea that Iran is trustworthy is contrary to what it has proven historically,” Russo told NJJN.
Jonah Singer, a Brandeis University undergraduate from Millburn, seemed more optimistic. “Netanyahu had a great effect on Congress. He was pretty bipartisan. This is a critical time when the U.S. could pass a bill that affects Israel’s future and Iran’s future,” he said.
‘Push this forward’
Among 800 rabbis attending the conference was Daniel Cohen, religious leader of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange and a member of AIPAC’s national council.
Cohen served as a panelist discussing “the progressive case for Israel.”
Speaking as “a liberal Democrat and a progressive Zionist,” Cohen told NJJN that Netanyahu “is concerned about Iran with a bomb and the safety and security of Israel. He understands the importance of AIPAC as the guardian of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Cohen, who met with Payne, suggested that “President Obama work closely with Congress with the understanding that diplomacy is what every reasonable person and every reasonable government wants to see, and push this forward. I would hope what we will see in a proposed deal will cripple Iran’s ability to become a nuclear power. I would like to see Congress have the right to review any deal.”
John Rosen, NJ area director of the American Jewish Committee, also gave a good review to Netanyahu’s speech.
“I was impressed by Netanyahu’s emphasis on the strength and closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the longstanding bipartisan nature of that link, and the robust support of the Obama administration for Israel,” he wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “A bad deal will pose a threat not just to Israel, but to Israel’s Arab neighbors and the world at large.”
Not everyone was pleased at the proceedings in Congress and at the AIPAC convention.
Allan Nadler, professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in Madison, posted a strong critique on his Facebook page.
“Powerful rhetoric, as always from Bibi. Great applause lines. But not a single original thought, new idea, or concrete proposal or alternative,” Nadler wrote. “Iran is bad, the deal is bad, no deal is better. A nightmarish, apocalyptic, deeply dark speech that spat in the face of the White House and only made existing tensions so much worse. This man is a menace to Israel, not its great defender.”